NORFOLK, Va. — BYU will be part of a federal project lead by the College of William and Mary that will allow the U.S. to better track the aid it gives to other countries, which could help reduce fraud and better target regions that need assistance, officials said.
Williamsburg-based William and Mary was awarded $25 million by the U.S. Agency for International Development, making it the single largest financial award in school history.
The new AidData Center for Development Policy will be a joint venture between William and Mary, Brigham Young University and the University of Texas at Austin, with students from each school traveling abroad to help governments there understand the data they create.
The center will create geospatial data and tools that will allow the U.S. and other governments around the world to see which areas inside of a country are getting what types of aid and which regions it might benefit more, which is particularly helpful during disaster response.
Ultimately, that will allow a country to see on a map that food assistance or medical care is already being provided in one city by another nation and that they may be able to provide a different type of assistance that is needed more, such as food in a region that may be prone to suffering from droughts.
"Imagine you had this huge spreadsheet and you didn't know where within Tanzania the aid was actually flowing, all you knew was the country of Tanzania was receiving the aid," said Michael Tierney, director of the new AidData Center of Development Policy and co-director of the College's Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations.
"You didn't know how it was spent, didn't know exactly what it was for, didn't know where it was spent. Under those circumstances it's very difficult for U.S. taxpayers to know where their money went specifically, it's difficult for local recipients to know whether they got the money they were promised or whether it got put into the pocket of some corrupt official, and it's very difficult to be able to coordinate between say France and the World Bank and the United States."
William and Mary is one of seven schools that were awarded the grants Nov. 15. Other schools receiving grants include Duke, Michigan State, Texas A&M, MIT, University of California at Berkley and a university in Uganda. Centers at those schools will work on projects such as improving agriculture in conflict areas such as Afghanistan, developing technology to end poverty and developing crops resistant to climate change.
"We really do believe that it is now possible to end extreme poverty, and doing so will help us as a nation be more secure and create more economic opportunities for our own people, creating jobs at home," U.S. AID administrator Rajiv Shah said in a teleconference.
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Initially, the William and Mary project will target 15 countries, although those haven't been decided yet. That may expand in the future. Although the financial award is for five years, the college has made a 20-year commitment to U.S. AID.
"This is right in our wheelhouse. We think this is super important research, and we're going to support it for the long run," Tierney said.
"It has the potential to save people's lives in developing countries. That's a good reason to care about this work."
Each of the seven schools playing host to a center in collaboration with private partners has also agreed to spend $6.60 toward the project for every $10 in U.S. Aid money.